Emile, Emilia and philosophy

I think that it was Jane Roland Martin in her “Reclaiming a Conversation: the Ideal of the Educated Woman” (but I don´t have the book here with me) who, after pointing out how inadequate Sophie is a model for the ideal woman, calls for a new female counterpart for Emile, an Emily to replace Sophie.

My first acquaintance with J.R. Martin was with sections of “Reclaiming a Conversation” on Rousseau and Wollstonecraft last autumn. I found the argument so persuasive and baffling, that I packed the first couple of chapters of the book, the introduction and the one on Plato, and brought them with me to my summer vacations back home in Brazil.

These two chapters were high on my reading list, and I read them right away. And all of a sudden, I wished I had brought the whole book. I found these two chapters even more persuasive and baffling than the two I had read. I think this was probably because the first addressed introduction to philosophy in general (ch.1) and Plato in particular (ch. 2), topics I had spent most of my academic life thinking about. As for the two chapters I read last year, one dealt with an author I hadn´t read much; the other an author I had never even heard of.

As I now read the book from the very beginning, many of the pennies collected when I read the Rousseau and the Wollstonecraft chapters finally dropped. In particular, I suddenly realised that I had already met Emily. Or rather, Emília. Actually, I had known her all my life! She is all that Rousseau´s Sophie is not: nosy, irreverent, extremely clever, daring, independent, even bossy. She was created in Brazil in the 1920´s. It was Emília and her friends in a little ranch in the Brazilian countryside that introduced me to a great deal of world literature. Including Ancient Greek. Including philosophical characters like Socrates. And that before I was even 10!

“Plato´s Female Guardians”, the chapter on Plato, put me into the mode: “This makes so much sense, how come I never thought about it this way?” It was a kind of Copernican revolution, or a Kuhnian change of paradigms. So I did this “intellectual regression” thing, to see where it was that I bought into the normal approach.

As I mentioned in the previous post, before I was a Socrates´s fan, I was fascinated with Greek mythology, especially the goddess Athena. I was first exposed to Greek mythology throught this series of 16 children´s books which I devoured when I was about 9-10 years old. The books were written from 1921 to 1946, and it is called “O Sítio do Picapau Amarelo”, literally “The Yellow Woodpecker Ranch”. (Worth noticing that the yellow woodpecker is to Brazil as the Beaver is to Canada.)

The series were very well-written, and became TV shows several times, and I think there is a new re-make still on. Most of the stories take place on the ranch, and involve themes that mix Brazilian folklore with world literature like Cervantes, Hans Standen, Grimm brothers, Peter Pan, Lewis Carroll, and Ancient Greek mythology, as well as other ´subjects´ like math, grammar, history, geography and biology.

I was thinking about all this, and even though I had to admit what she said seemed really on the mark (more and more so the deeper I got into academic philosophy), it struck me that my childhood learning experience was not really like what Martin described in “Reclaiming a Conversation”. And the reason, as I now realised, was that, in my intellectual history, before there was Socrates, there was Emília. And that made all the difference.

Emília was all Socrates was and more: she was a little Brazilian female gadfly, that left even Socrates in awe (yes, in volume 11 they meet! And even good old Socrates was stunned!).

It seems that this collection of books does not yet appear in English, though it does make to a few sites, like wikipedia (links below). I found about 50 articles on him on Scholars´ Portal, mostly in Portuguese. Now I really want to dig deeper into this, and have tons to say about how well it predates Martin (re: women) and Freire (re: Brazilian culture). But so that you have an idea of how the story goes, let me give you a rough translation of two memorable encounters: with Pericles and Socrates.

BACKGROUND: Dona Benta, an old widow, lives on a ranch with her grandaughter Lúcia, a.k.a Narizinho (“Funny Nose”) and her friend and cook Aunt Nastácia (short for Anastácia), a black woman. Pedrinho (“Pete”), same age as Narizinho, lives in the city, and comes visit his grandmother on vacations. Emília starts as Narizinho´s ragdoll, made by Aunt Nastácia, who somehow becomes alive, and practically runs the show. Another important figure is the wise Viscount, a corncob, also brought to life the same way as Emília.

In this particular piece, written in 1937, Aunt Nastácia suddenly goes missing, and the whole ranch´s gang goes to Pericles´ Athens to find her. At the moment, they are at Pericles´ palace, being entertained by his extremely wise wife Aspasia (this is important, I´ll come back to this later), and Pericles himself. Here´s a dialogue between Dona Benta and Pericles (rough translation). I am leaving the gender markers as they appear in the original.

In the courtyard the great Greek statesman continued to chat with the old woman. They were discussing politics.

“We have conquered aristocracy, madam,” he said. “Today Greece is positively governed by the people. Solon revealed his genius when he conceived our form of government. There is no imposition on any man. The governor is chosen by the people. I, for instance, put into practice that which the people desire – this is why they continue to re-elect me.”

“You are an exceptional case,” Dona Benta argued, “you say you follow the will of the people, but in fact your intelligence and your excellent speeches are what make the people desire this or that. It is you, not the people, who govern Athens.”

“I see that madam has an acute eye for psychology,´ said Pericles smiling. “The people are like children. They want to be led – but with the appearance that in fact it is they who lead and command. (Esterical note: at this point any doubt that the reference to Rousseau´s Emile is deliberate is completely dispelled). “My system, however, is to desire nothing that goes against the will of the people. I am an interpreter of their desires – and the enlightener of the city. (…)”

“I notice an error in your words when you refer to “the people”, Mr. Pericles. It is not the people who govern Athens, but the small class of citizens. “People” means the whole population. But there are here 400 thousand slaves who do not have the right to vote. This is unjust, and will be Greece´s doom.”

Pericles was stunned that anyone could see things that way.

“But they are slaves, madam! Slaves are slaves!”

“You´re mistaken, Mr. Pericles. A man does not stop being a man in virtue of being a slave; and a society that divides men into freemen and slaves is condemned to disappear.”

This idea made the Greek man laugh:

“Do you think then that there can be a society without slaves and masters? Who will do the heavy work?”

“A just society cannot have slaves, Mr. Pericles, and in such a society all the work will be done by freemen. That´s how it is in the modern world I come from…

And so on and so forth. Actually, it gets even better, with references to Aristotle, Brazilian slaverly, Plato and European totalitarism on this same page, and Socrates and Emília coming in the next chapter. And this is what I read at the age of 9! No wonder I was such a strange girl – and still am. But you´re probably tired by now, I for one am exhausted. So I´ll do the rest later. But should you be curious, here are some sites with a bit of background info on author and work:



Stay tuned for the next episode of Ester´s intellectual diary.


4 responses to “Emile, Emilia and philosophy

  1. Ahhhh, Monteiro Lobato and the Sitio do Pica-Pau Amarelo… I used to LOVE those books – I still remember my Emilia doll…
    Hmm, maybe I’ll get my parents to send me the series from Brazil. It would be great to re-read them 😉

  2. Well, I am in Brazil at the moment, and will be more than happy to get you some taste of SPPA. Though, on second thought, the sixteen books are way too heavy… Want me to bring you an Emília doll?

  3. I’m impressed with your site, very nice graphics!

  4. Very pretty design! Keep up the good work. Thanks.

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